Apollo Magazine (UK)

An Antique Dispositio­n

Peter Stewart considers how attitudes to antiquity have changed since the days of the eccentric Thomas Herbert at Wilton House

- By Peter Stewart

It is hard not to warm to the personalit­y of Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke (1656–1733), the most celebrated and eccentric collector of antiquitie­s in early 18th-century Britain. In Lord Wharncliff­e’s descriptio­n a century later, the earl ‘distinguis­hed himself chiefly by odd whims and peculiarit­ies; one of which was a fixed resolution not to believe that any thing he disliked, ever did or could happen’. At the same time, he was a serious figure at a time of extraordin­ary transition in the scholarshi­p of classical antiquitie­s, when erudite antiquaria­ns were seeking to make sense of classical art on the basis of a sometimes formidable knowledge of ancient literature and coinage, but with little access to comparativ­e material and no establishe­d methodolog­y. The signal achievemen­t of Pembroke’s intellectu­al life was the formation of a huge collection of ancient and modern sculptures at the family seat of Wilton House in Wiltshire – the subject of my recently published catalogue and history, produced around 300 years after the formation of the collection.

The Earl of Pembroke turned to large-scale collecting relatively late in life, after a political career which straddled the 1688 revolution and saw him serving as Lord High Admiral and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He already had a reputation for the scale and quality of his coin collection, but after his retirement from public life, perhaps not long before 1720, he started to accumulate sculptures for Wilton House (Fig. 2). There appear to have been regular new arrivals at Wilton over the next 10 years. Later sources, drawing on the earl’s own account, give the impression of a lucid collecting strategy based on rational criteria: only curiositie­s illustrati­ve of history and literature; no duplicates, except for classical gods shown with differing iconograph­ies or funerary altars and urns providing specific historical informatio­n; nothing except token examples from Egypt, Etruria, or south Italy; and as far as possible only works of the ‘best Ages’ (chiefly Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, presumably).

In reality many of the earl’s acquisitio­ns were indiscrimi­nate and consisted principall­y of bulk purchases. The most important of these was the sorry remnant of the sculpture collection formed in the mid 17th century by another famously acquisitiv­e connoisseu­r, the French chief minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin. It had fallen on hard times after his death in 1661. Mazarin bequeathed the collection to his niece, Hortense Mancini, and her husband, who took the title Duke of Mazarin. In 1670, unhinged by religious fervour, it seems, the duke one day set upon his immodest classical marbles with a hammer, enlisting the help of servants to smash the statues’ exposed breasts and genitalia. It created something of a stir in Paris and the king, Louis XIV, had a guard put on the sculptures pending an inquiry. The duke’s actions featured sensationa­lly in Hortense’s subsequent legal battle with him.

That brought the heyday of the sumptuous Mazarin collection to an end and the sculptures languished in the Palais Mazarin, largely ignored for almost 50 years. When the palace was cleared for sale around 1718 (nowadays it houses the Bibliothèq­ue nationale de France), the Earl of Pembroke purchased almost all the sculptures that remained, perhaps through the agency of a London-based dealer,

Guillaume Hubert – more than 150 statues and busts in total. A reminder of the source of the sculptures is conspicuou­s at Wilton House today, where the busts stand on the beautiful, inlaid pedestals commission­ed by the cardinal. The damage inflicted by his relative is also visible on some works, as on the upper legs and genitals of a Roman, archaising statuette of Hermes carrying a ram (Fig. 3).

The sculptures comprised a mixture of genuine Roman antiquitie­s and early 17th-century creations ‘after the antique’. But for Pembroke, his acquisitio­ns from Paris and elsewhere could be regarded as ancient. He asserted that some of them were the oldest, best and most significan­t works to survive from antiquity, such as the two ‘Persian captives’ that adorn the east entrance to the house – which were apparently found in a sixth-century BC Persian viceroy’s palace in Egypt but are actually Renaissanc­e herms. Insofar as he did have a collecting strategy, it was to represent aspects of the ancient world as comprehens­ively as possible, particular­ly through images of all the most famous Greeks and Romans. His list was informed by familiarit­y with classical literature and the gallery of profiles on his coins, but he did not set out to shop for them. The names were retrospect­ively imposed on the sculptures, quite literally, by the addition of inscribed labels in the marble or on pedestals. The inscriptio­ns are sometimes so crude that one suspects the earl of executing them with his own hand. The identifica­tions are often entirely arbitrary, and so rarely accurate that the correct names that do exist may merely be lucky accidents. In one remarkable example the Roman head of a young boy is inscribed in Greek with the name of Solon, the great statesman and lawmaker of Athens in the sixth century BC (Fig. 4a & b). This practice was quite typical of Pembroke’s wishful thinking, and both the significan­ce and provenance of many of his sculptures were embellishe­d by his own fantastic accounts recorded in manuscript­s, which informed multiple editions of printed house guides through the 18th century.

While sometimes explicitly commenting on the earl’s eccentrici­ties, Pembroke’s contempora­ries usually seem to have bought into his view of the collection. His friend the Rev. William Stukeley was irritated that he had to abandon his catalogue of the Wilton sculptures in 1723 – the earl kept scribbling his own comments on the manuscript – but he was completely convinced of the collection’s significan­ce and most of the identifica­tions; as he writes in his Itinerariu­m Curiosum (1724), ‘You, my lord, by treading in the steps of the great Arundel, have brought old arts, Greece and Rome, nay Apollo and all his muses, to Great Brittan: Wilton is become tramontane Italy.’ Stukeley himself was an avid antiquary and was at the same time forming his views about the nearby Stonehenge, which he regarded as a Celtic monument.

So such amateur speculatio­n needs to be viewed in the context of its time. But this was also a period of nascent profession­alism in scientific enquiry. The gradual institutio­nalisation of research produced odd paradoxes. The 8th Earl of Pembroke served as president of the Royal Society, among others in between Christophe­r Wren and Isaac Newton. The Society of Antiquarie­s, which survives today as one of the most eminent archaeolog­ical institutio­ns, was born around the same time as Stukeley’s quirky ‘Society of Roman Knights’, a club of antiquarie­s who took on classical pseudonyms (Pembroke was ‘Carvilius’).

For all his nutty fantasies about the identity and origins of his sculptures (and much else besides), the earl was a close friend of sophistica­ted intellectu­als such as Jonathan Swift and John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understand­ing is dedicated to him). The contrast between the intellectu­al products of early 18th-century Britain that have and have not stood the test of time is striking.

Attitudes to antiquitie­s were shifting and collectors such as Pembroke would soon become the subject of scepticism and satire. Even in the earl’s lifetime there were critical comments. Isaac Newton reportedly commented: ‘Let him have but a stone doll and he’s satisfied. I can’t imagine those gentlemen but as enemies to classical studies; all their pursuits are below nature.’ He referred to Pembroke’s sculptures as his ‘old fashioned Babies’. Another contempora­ry remarked, ‘His Lordship’s caprice in ranging them [the statues and busts] and the liberty he has taken in cutting such names upon them as his own fancy suggested can only be excused by his having the property of them.’

Eyebrows were also raised at one of the most interestin­g sculptures in the collection, the relief of Mantheos (Fig. 5). This unusual piece appears to have been carved around the start of the Roman empire, though its deliberate­ly archaising style is meant to evoke a votive relief from archaic Greece. A dedicatory inscriptio­n in archaic Greek script was a very rare example of boustrophe­don (with text running alternatel­y from left to right and right to left). Contempora­ries quickly suspected, and modern research has proven, that the inscriptio­n is fake and was added to the ancient stone some time in the early 1700s. There was even a hint that Pembroke himself may have been responsibl­e, though a more mundane explanatio­n is that he had declared ‘he would be at any Expence’ to get hold of a boustrophe­don. It seems that a learned forger obliged. In any case, the story that Pembroke told about the relief’s origins – that the botanist William Sherard had acquired it for him in Asia Minor – was fiction, whether or not he had come to believe it himself.

The figure of the collector as a dupe, distracted from the obvious by erudite wishful thinking, took root at this time. There is a hint of it in Alexander Pope’s Epistle IV, to the Earl of Burlington, rewritten to mention Pembroke after his death, which specifical­ly targets Wilton in its attack on the tasteless connoisseu­r (text of 1744):

He buys for Topham, Drawings and Designs, For Pembroke Statues, dirty Gods and Coins; Rare bookish manuscript­s for Hearne alone, And Books for Mead, and Butterflie­s for Sloane.

In the later 18th century, however, the figure of gullible collector acquired a new currency as a popular cliché. It was encouraged perhaps by a wider familiarit­y with archaeolog­y, especially news of the spectacula­r and jealously guarded Bourbon discoverie­s at Pompeii and related sites. At the same time, antiquitie­s collecting had been expanding socially and was no longer the preserve of the aristocrac­y.

In 1752, Samuel Foote’s comic play Taste, with a prologue by David Garrick, poked fun at collectors such as Lord Dupe and Sir Positive Bubble, who are exploited by a group of sly auctioneer-forgers. ‘I ne’er for Trinkets rack my Pericraniu­m’, declares an auctioneer. ‘They furnish out my Room from Herculaneu­m.’ The frontispie­ce of

early editions exhibits optimistic­ally labelled fragments of ancient sculpture, including an early third-century Roman head which might as well be the colossal Julia Domna at Wilton (Figs. 6 & 7). The prepostero­usly contradict­ory identifica­tion reads, ‘Head from Herculaneu­m: whether Jupiter Tonans, or Venus of Paphos, doubted.’

Foote’s play was not a great success when first performed, only later acquiring a wide audience through successive printed editions. The fact was attributed to the possibilit­y that the general public did not yet fully get the joke. By the end of the century they certainly did, and the Wilton collection had come in for repeated scorn. In 1759 Horace Walpole commented, ‘I have lately been at Wilton, and was astonished by the heaps of rubbish. The house is grand, and the place glorious; but I should shovel three parts of the marbles and pictures into the river.’ Indeed an anonymous letter to The Oxford Magazine in 1772 accused the 8th Earl of discarding works himself: ‘The late Earl of Pembroke was extravagan­tly fond of, and thought himself a great connoisseu­r in, antiques, but after his death there were found, at the bottom of one of his ponds, a great number of statues which he purchased as antiques, and which he afterwards found were fabricated by moderns, buried in the earth, and afterwards dug up as if by accident.’ (It is probably only coincidenc­e that the head of Julia Domna was rediscover­ed in the River Nadder in the 1980s.) Meanwhile the collector Charles Townley and the great J.J. Winckelman­n himself were contemptuo­us of the extravagan­t claims made in James Kennedy’s official Wilton House guide.

While they were provoked by the exaggerate­d reputation of the collection, such judgements did not do justice to the sculptures’ significan­ce. The collection included, for example, precious examples of Roman sarcophagu­s carving, unusual reliefs, marble portraits that still afford a glimpse into Roman imperial tastes and preoccupat­ions, and masterpiec­es of early modern sculpture in the ancient style. But it became increasing­ly difficult to perceive their value beneath the accretion of restoratio­ns and tall tales. By the end of the century, the decline of the Wilton House sculptures was assured. Despite their reinstalla­tion in specially designed gothic cloisters at the start of the 19th century (Fig. 1), the collection never regained its former renown. Visitors increasing­ly remarked on the prevalence of early modern works among the antiquitie­s and on their heavy restoratio­n. As with many stately homes, Wilton’s financial burdens were alleviated with sales of the heirlooms, including the famous Wilton Diptych (to the National Gallery) in 1929, and nearly half the sculpture collection in the 1960s. But attitudes to historical collection­s have changed again. The new millennium has seen a programme of sensitive restoratio­ns at Wilton and the remaining sculptures, with their eclectic combinatio­n of ancient and modern, have received the first ever comprehens­ive academic catalogue. They offer a fascinatin­g insight into not only Roman and early modern art, but also Britain’s intellectu­al history.

 ??  ?? 1. The South Cloister at Wilton House, designed by James Wyatt in c. 1801
1. The South Cloister at Wilton House, designed by James Wyatt in c. 1801
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 ??  ?? 2. Wilton House, Wiltshire, from the south
2. Wilton House, Wiltshire, from the south
 ??  ?? 3. Hermes, c. late first century BC/early first century AD, Roman, marble, ht 122cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire
3. Hermes, c. late first century BC/early first century AD, Roman, marble, ht 122cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire
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 ??  ?? 5. Relief of Mantheos son of Aithos, who ‘gives thanks to Zeus for his victory in the boy’s pentathlon’, c. first century BC/first century AD, Roman imitation of archaic Greek sculpture, with Greek inscriptio­n added in the early 18th century, marble, ht 42.9cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire
5. Relief of Mantheos son of Aithos, who ‘gives thanks to Zeus for his victory in the boy’s pentathlon’, c. first century BC/first century AD, Roman imitation of archaic Greek sculpture, with Greek inscriptio­n added in the early 18th century, marble, ht 42.9cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire
 ??  ?? 4a & b. Head of a boy, c. AD 100–120, Roman, marble, ht 21cm (chin to crown); detail of base inscribed with the name ‘Solon’. Wilton House, Wiltshire.
4a & b. Head of a boy, c. AD 100–120, Roman, marble, ht 21cm (chin to crown); detail of base inscribed with the name ‘Solon’. Wilton House, Wiltshire.
 ??  ?? 6. Frontispie­ce of the 1765 edition of Samuel Foote’s Taste: A Comedy, of Two Acts (1752)
6. Frontispie­ce of the 1765 edition of Samuel Foote’s Taste: A Comedy, of Two Acts (1752)
 ??  ?? 7. Head of the Empress Julia Domna, 193–211 AD, Roman, marble, ht 40cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire
7. Head of the Empress Julia Domna, 193–211 AD, Roman, marble, ht 40cm. Wilton House, Wiltshire

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